Monday, May 18, 2020

What Happened on 12.21.19: Dorian Fox

Remember our What Happened on 12.21.19 project? Looks like we're still posting these, so if you're still working on yours, send it in! —Editors


We got on the road late. Our goal was Boston to Pittsburgh by 10 p.m., and I hadn’t packed the night before. Maggie worried about making good time and I worried about feeling rushed. My worst fear is doing a bad job, on whatever schedule, and her worst fear is failing to do the scheduled thing at all. Not so different, but sometimes our neuroses interfere with each other.

Road coffees and doughnuts made us feel better, along with the increasing distance from our daily routines. We weren’t ready for carols yet, so Maggie put on Lizzo. We plotted a course that included some scenic byways.

In Danbury, CT, we had lunch at the New Holiday Diner, which was pretty on the nose. I wished more of life were on the nose. We sat in a booth by windows. Maggie ordered a Coke and a burger and I got a chicken club and a chocolate milkshake. Across the street, kids toddled outside a railroad museum under a giant Uncle Sam. By that point Maggie was crying, missing her parents, who had escaped to Florida for two weeks, but mostly missing her sister, who is no longer alive. We talked about family and grief and money and health care. I was concerned I’d snap at my dad over politics in the coming days.

At a café in Milford, PA, the bar was decorated with strings of lights and a video board with festive drink specials. The bartender said, “Welcome to Rudolph’s,” and then we walked off to use the bathrooms, and when we circled back he said “Welcome to Rudolph’s” again. We ordered hot ciders and I joked about wanting the alcoholic kind but having to drive.

In an antique shop, I found a small statue of a fox wearing fox-hunting clothes. It was also a bottle opener. At the register, I told the clerk my dad’s birthday is on Christmas and his last name is Fox (both true). She didn’t seem to think it was very clever, but she was polite and wrapped the gift carefully in tissue paper. In another shop, we bought a dress for my niece and a cutting board made of Italian olive wood for my sister and brother-in-law.

We passed through Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, our main reason for taking the route we took. Maggie worried we’d miss the light, which on this shortest day of the year would be gone by around 3:30, our phones said. The timing worked, though. We drove alongside bare trees and foggy fields, and even though we were headed southwest, not west, an orange sky rippled out in front of us. For thirty miles it felt like the coming year, and maybe the future in general, might be okay.

After that, three more hours of highways. Holiday albums by bluegrass bands and RuPaul. Andy Williams, Nat King Cole and Mariah Carey on the radio. In Altoona, PA, we stopped at a satellite franchise version of a famous Pittsburgh sandwich shop. Football on every screen, and in the back a large party whooped it up for some occasion. At the bar, a young bearded server looked overwhelmed. “Are you two complicated?” he asked. We said we didn’t think so. We ordered two lagers, hot wings and a capicola and cheese.

I drove the last dark leg to Pittsburgh, and we saw the city lights rise up over the hills. Then more darkness in the suburbs. Around 11 we pulled up to the beige colonial my mom sometimes calls a Hallmark house. In fairness, it did look like a Hallmark house. Red bow on the lamppost, electric candles in every window. My parents were at a Christmas party, so we found the key under the mat, dragged some luggage inside and went to check on my grandma on the sunporch, where she now spends almost all her time. She’s eighty-seven and sleeps in my childhood bed. We hugged her and she seemed surprised, but glad. “I wish I had natural waves like that,” she said, and touched my hair. She says it every time she sees me, lamenting her years of curlers and perms. Maggie laughed and disappeared upstairs, where I’d later find her swaddled in lacy blankets.

In the meantime I sat with my grandma. We watched a holiday concert: blue stage lighting and poinsettias like sprays of paint. “Is your mum around?” “No gram, she’s at a party.” Sometimes she asks for her own mother. She still feels like the same person to me, but maybe that’s another thing I won’t look at straight on. Before my parents got home in their party clothes – the garage door’s rumble, then bells on the kitchen knob jangling – I kissed her face, which felt like cool, damp silk.


Dorian Fox is a writer and freelance editor in Boston, where he teaches creative writing courses at GrubStreet.

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